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This Debate, We Could Hear Biden Speak. There His Troubles Began.

This Debate, We Could Hear Biden Speak. There His Troubles Began.

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With the plans for the 2024 presidential debates, President Biden’s campaign appeared to get much of what it wanted. It got its preferred timeline, with Thursday night’s debate in Atlanta far earlier on the calendar than usual. It got the live audience removed. It got, above all, an agreement to mute the microphone on the candidate who wasn’t speaking, to avoid the cross-talk that made his first 2020 debate with Donald J. Trump a cacophonous mess.

After Thursday night, Mr. Biden — and his party — might have wanted the cross-talk back.

The changes that CNN instituted staved off the shouting matches and the competitive cheering that have marked past debates. But they could not prevent Mr. Biden from starting his rushed opening remarks in a papery rasp that, before the debate was over, his campaign was stressing to reporters was the result of a cold. It did not keep him from getting lost in the corn maze of his sentences, answer after answer.

And it did not keep him from finishing an argument on tax reform and health care with a spiral that was surely saved instantly to the hard drives of Republican campaign operatives: “Making sure that we’re able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I’ve been able to do with, the, uh, with the Covid, excuse me, with, um, dealing with, everything we had to do with, uh … look … if — we finally beat Medicare.”

There was no interruption. Mr. Biden came across loud and unclear.

You can at least credit Mr. Biden for one accomplishment: For perhaps the first time since Mr. Trump announced for president nine years ago, he managed to hold a debate in which Mr. Trump’s performance was not the biggest news afterward.

The former president and challenger had his own issues. He blustered, dodged, made false statements and repeated his denials of his 2020 election loss. He cited his golf game as proof of his acuity and uttered the line, “I didn’t have sex with a porn star.” But Mr. Trump, kept to glowering between answers by the mute button, was outrageous and misleading in a familiar way; it was the standard man-bites-fact-checker story.

The debate in Atlanta — sorry, the “CNN Presidential Debate,” as the ubiquitous branding emphasized — was fairly bare-bones. (It was also simulcast on the other major news networks.) The moderators, Dana Bash and Jake Tapper, spread questions across a variety of topics, not correcting candidates in the moment. The pushback they gave was limited to reminding the debaters of how much time they had left and firmly asking them, again, to answer questions they had sidestepped, as Ms. Bash did when asking Mr. Trump if he would accept the results of this election as he had not in 2020. (He gave the qualified answer that he would accept a “fair” and “legal” election.)

The fact-checking was missed. If Mr. Trump can get away with saying anything, he will, and he did, and who knows how many viewers stuck around for the eventual cable truth-squadding after prime time?

But the other format changes were an improvement. No audience tweak or mute switch can make candidates more honest, discourse more ennobling or voters more satisfied with their choices. But viewers should, for better or worse, at least be able to hear.

Here, the story of the night was how Mr. Biden said what he said, and how this happened. Maybe he was over-prepared. He rushed through answers, especially early on, gushing statistics and talking points in a speed-mumble.

Or maybe he has lost a step. Four years ago, after all, he sloughed off Mr. Trump’s raging with grins and a “Will you shut up, man?”; he filleted Paul Ryan in the 2012 vice-presidential debate. (He did all this, as he has discussed, having overcome a stutter.)

Maybe, of course, he just had a bad night. But contending with political doubts, fair or not, about his age and fitness, he had a bad night when he knew he could not afford one.

I should anticipate the inevitable objections: Yes, substance matters more than style. What presidents do has more consequence than how they tell you they’ll do it. Media critics like Neil Postman worried for decades that television would turn campaigning into entertainment. They were not wrong.

But no one forces the president to debate on TV. CNN does not have subpoena power. Substance outweighs style, but it is through style that a leader communicates substance to the world, to Congress, to voters. Someone who runs for president agrees to enter the arena, and the arena is full of cameras.

Mr. Trump, whose longest-lived relationship is with the camera, probably benefited from the restrictions reining him in. Yes, the mute button kept him from turning the debate into a braying dominance contest. But he spent 14 seasons on “The Apprentice,” a regimented, ritualized reality show on which he had to hit his marks and strike poses.

The split-screen, on the other hand, was brutal to Mr. Biden, who often held a frozen, slack-mouthed stare while Mr. Trump attacked his record and mangled the facts.

Maybe this will affect voters, maybe it won’t. President Barack Obama came back from a first debate in 2012 that was widely considered a bomb. Despite all the reports of Democratic panic on cable news after the debate, a CNN focus group of undecided voters in Michigan was closely split between the two candidates.

But there’s a lesson here regardless. You can hush the studio and mute the cross-talk. But what comes out of your own mouth is still on you.

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